FBI agents investigating county jail deaths and violated rights

A federal investigation of Cuyahoga County’s treatment of U.S. citizens incarcerated under County Executive Armond Budish and Sheriff Clifford Pinkney’s custody will spell out how detention and constitutional compliance co-mingle; and reveal prosecutable criminal acts.

CUYAHOGA COUNTY, OH – Six U.S. citizens dying while in custody under elected County Executive Armond Budish and appointed Sheriff Clifford Pinkney brought an October 30 visit to the jail by FBI agents under U.S. Attorney Justin Herdman’s direction who want to know why.  EJBNEWS learned from a man being held while awaiting trial that he and other people locked up were interviewed by FBI agents about jail conditions.  The man said federal agents also interviewed county corrections officers.

Fights between men and women locked up for murders, shootings, stabbings, poisonings, violent physical attacks against the innocent, rapes and more occur in the same space where people are locked up for minor and non-violent offenses like non-payment of child support in an overcrowded and short-staffed jail.  The violence threatens the safety of other detained citizens and corrections officers.

According to the detained man, a U.S. citizen, FBI agents witnessed the overcrowding in the 2000 person facility and had to step over some of the 60 people on the floor in a pod with 40 beds.  Complaints where shared about the lack of medical treatment and prescription medications.  Agents were told by some of not being supplied with toilet paper. 

Cleveland Municipal Court Judge Michael Nelson has been on the bench for less than a year and has already demonstrated why his civil rights mindset was needed when he decided not to send non-violent offenders to a jail where they were dying.

The man said agents heard some of the same issues about judges holding people in jail for being poor that federal investigators discovered when President Barack Obama’s administration investigated the municipal court in Ferguson, Missouri after Michael Brown was shot to death by cop Darren Wilson in 2014.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder released a report that described unconstitutional and unlawful “jail the poor because they’re poor” acts Ferguson’s municipal court judge was committing that were being mirrored in other courts across the nation.  

Assistant U.S. Attorneys Vanita Gupta and Lisa Foster authored a March 14, 2016 letter to the nation’s judges warning them of their unconstitutional acts.   The letter was immediately shared with the state’s 722 judges via email by Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor of the Supreme Court of Ohio warning them all to stop.  Gupta and Foster previously warned judges and prosecutors that 18 U.S.C. 241 and 242 applied to them as equally as it does police officers.

“As the Department of Justice set forth in detail in a federal court brief last year, and as courts have long recognized, any bail practices that result in incarceration based on poverty violate the Fourteenth Amendment. See Statement of Interest of the United States, Varden v. City of Clanton, No. 2:15-cv-34-MHT-WC, at 8 (M.D. Ala., Feb. 13, 2015) (citing Bearden, 461 U.S. at 671; Tate, 401 U.S. at 398; Williams, 399 U.S. at 240-41).10 Systems that rely primarily on secured monetary bonds without adequate consideration of defendants’ financial means tend to result in the incarceration of poor defendants who pose no threat to public safety solely because they cannot afford to pay.” 

The presence of FBI agents at the Cuyahoga County jail suggests that a preliminary investigation is underway to learn if any federal laws are being violated. 

Cleveland Municipal Court Judge Michael Nelson wasn’t on the bench when Gupta and Foster sent their letter to Chief Justice O’Connor in 2016. After the 6th death Nelson said he wasn’t sending low level and non-violent offenders to the overcrowded, understaffed and now life and safety-threatening jail.

“Going to jail for any reason should not be a death sentence,” said Nelson who before his election served as the Cleveland NAACP chapter president.

While there’s no guarantee that the FBI’s preliminary meeting with citizens in detention and corrections officers will lead to a criminal or civil investigation by the U.S. Attorney, the manuals used by Justice Department prosecutors provides the following insights on the internal discussions that may now be taking place.

At the outset of a criminal investigation initiated by a United States Attorney’s Office that may implicate federal criminal civil rights statutes, including human trafficking and involuntary servitude statutes, 18 U.S.C. §§ 1581 to 1594, and in no event later than ten days before the commencement of the examination of witnesses before a grand jury, the United States Attorney’s Office shall advise the Civil Rights Division in writing of the new investigation. The notification should be in writing and contain the following information: (1) identity of the targets of the investigation; (2) the factual allegations under investigation; (3) the statutes that may have been violated; (4) the United States Attorney’s Office’s assessment of the significance of the case and whether the case is one of “national interest,” as defined below; and (5) the United States Attorney’s Office’s proposed staffing of the matter, including whether a Civil Rights Division attorney should be assigned to work directly on the matter. The United States Attorney’s Office will advise the Civil Rights Division as the case develops of new information relating to the United States Attorney’s Office’s assessment of the case and whether it is one of “national interest.”   


Eric Jonathan Brewer

Cleveland's most influential journalist and East Cleveland's most successful mayor is an East Saint Louis, Illinois native whose father led the city's petition drive in 1969 to elect the first black mayor in 1971. Eric is an old-school investigative reporter whose 40-year body of editorial work has been demonstrably effective. No local journalist is feared or respected more.

Trained in newspaper publishing by the legendary Call & Post Publisher William Otis Walker in 1978 when it was the nation's 5th largest Black-owned publication, Eric has published and edited 13 local, regional and statewide publications across Ohio. Adding to his publishing and reporting resume is Eric's career in government. Eric served as the city's highest paid part-time Special Assistant to ex-Cleveland Mayor Michael R. White. He served as Chief of Staff to ex-East Cleveland Mayor Emmanuel Onunwor; and Chief of Communications to the late George James in his capacity as the Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority's first Black executive director. Eric was appointed to serve as a member of the state's Financial Planning & Supervision Commission to guide the East Cleveland school district out of fiscal emergency and $20 million deficit. Former U.S. HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson told Eric in his D.C. office he was the only mayor in the nation simultaneously-managing a municipal block grant program. Eric wrote the city's $2.2 million Neighborhood Stabilization Program grant application. A HUD Inspector General audit of his management of the block grant program resulted in "zero" audit findings.

As a newspaper publisher, Eric has used his insider's detailed knowledge of government and his publications to lead the FBI and state prosecutors to investigations that resulted in criminal prosecutions of well-known elected officials in Ohio; and have helped realign Cleveland's political landscape with the defeat of candidates and issues he's exposed. Eric's stories led to the indictments of the late Governor George Voinovich's brother, Paul Voinovich of the V Group, and four associates. He asked the FBI to investigate the mayor he'd served as chief of staff for public corruption; and testified in three federal trials for the prosecution. He forced former Cuyahoga County Coroner Dr. Elizabeth Balraj to admit her investigations of police killings were fraudulent; and to issue notices to local police that her investigators would control police killing investigations. Eric's current work has resulted in Cuyahoga County Judge John Russo accepting the criminal complaint he guided an activist to file against 24 civil rights-violating police officers in the city he once led for operating without valid peace officer credentials. USA Today reporters picked up on Eric's police credentials reporting from his social media page and made it national.

Eric is the author of of his first book, "Fight Police License Plate Spying," which examines the FBI and local police misuse of the National Crime Information Center criminal records history database. An accomplished trumpet player and singer whose friendship with Duke Fakir of the Four Tops resulted in his singing the show's closing song, "Can't Help Myself": Curtis Sliwa of New York's Guardian Angels counts Eric among his founding chapter leaders from the early 1980's role as an Ohio organizer of over 300 volunteer crime fighters in Cleveland, Columbus and Youngstown, Ohio. For his work as a young man Eric was recognized by Cleveland's Urban League as it's 1983 Young Man of the Year.

Known in Cleveland for his encyclopedic knowledge of government and history, and intimately-connected with the region's players, every local major media outlet in Cleveland has picked up on one of Eric's stories since 1979. There is no mainstream newspaper, television or radio outlet in Cleveland that does not include an interview with Eric Jonathan Brewer in its archives over the past 40 years.